Prescott on bulimia

Why the former deputy prime minister didn't reveal his condition in office

For most of the two hours we spent in John Prescott's office in Westminster, he talked energetically about politics: Blair, Brown, Bush, Iraq, climate change, the Murdochs. He was on fierce, bombastic form. But, towards the end, we briefly discussed a more personal side of his life. Last year, when Prescott admitted in his autobiography that he had suffered from bulimia, the press and public seemed astonished. Bulimia is usually associated with bony models or neurotic teenagers -- not 70-year-old Labour politicians.

"Most people have got me down as a bloated pig," he said when we spoke, conscious of how his image seemed at odds with the perception of bulimia as the disease of the thin. But his appearance masked a serious disorder that ultimately needed medical treatment. He reflects now that his revelation was treated relatively respectfully by the press -- they wrote about it as "a serious subject", which, given his usual treatment by journalists, was a change. But he noted that the reaction would have been very different if he'd spoken about his condition while still deputy PM:

It was happening in government. If I'd said it in government, the press would immediately have gone round saying, "Can he be in that job then? He's over-stressed, he can't do it."

It's an unwitting reference to the rumour mill that surrounded Gordon Brown earlier in the year as right-wing bloggers fuelled speculation that the Prime Minister was taking antidepressants -- a story that took off when Andrew Marr asked him the question on his TV show. The media, as Prescott infers, are quick to pronounce on someone being unfit for office.

As it was, he managed to keep his condition a secret, escaping interrogation and calls for his head (on this score, at least). But his awareness of his body and how he is perceived is still with him: he describes himself as we speak as "tubby and fatty", talks about how TV cameras can change the way you look, and sympathises with other sufferers. Many people who suffer from eating disorders struggle to admit it to themselves, let alone to a nation. Prescott's openness is surprising, but also genuinely impressive.

 

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Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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Jeremy Corbyn only made one mistake - he should have taken tighter control of the Labour party

There is no doubt who could, and should, win the Labour leadership contest.

Brexit changes everything. In the weeks and months that come, mountains will move, parties split and seemingly indisputable laws of politics will be torn up. Monday night’s thousands-strong rally in Parliament Square in support of Jeremy Corbyn perhaps marked the end of the immediate period of mourning that has engulfed much of the left – other than in the shadow cabinet, where the result has merely has prompted an out-of-the-box coup attempt. 

We are right to mourn – and not for the price of sterling.  Things which were once said quietly over pints are now displayed on billboards. The bigotry and unpleasantness that characterised the campaign – and the tragic violence that surrounded it – were not random occurrences but a vision of the future.

There has been a mass politicisation of some sections of society, and on the worst terms imaginable. As we prepare for battle against an emboldened and rightwardly mobile Tory Party, we are also coming to terms with the fact that the cleverest and most dynamic elements of the British ruling class have seemingly gained a popular mandate for the idea that immigration is responsible for the worsening of living standards. 

Why Brexit happened

Many of us woke up on Friday in a country we did not recognise, which had rejected so much of what seemed like the future. Yes, the European project was tainted by its lack of democracy and service to corporate interests, but it represented real human and historical progress. It meant integration and the breakdown of national borders. So much of the tragedy of this vote is in the plethora of unknown losses – the connections and shared lives that will, quietly, never happen. 

There is, rightly, a yearning to understand why this has happened. The answer ought to be obvious. In an era defined by the strength and resonance of anti-establishment politics, and a vote in which economically left-leaning voters were crucial, Britain Stronger In Europe – a campaign with strong backing from portions of the Labour right – lined up experts and churned out leaflets featuring corporate bigwigs. Reading leaflets in the final week of the campaign, I half-wondered in exasperation if, next to Tony Blair and Karen Brady, Darth Maul (not even the A-list sith lord) would make an appearance.

Labour’s own campaign was undoubtedly better. But, hamstrung by the doctrine of reaching out to an imaginary centre ground voter, it merely mixed Stronger In’s obsession with economic growth statistics and Britain’s place in the world with rolling coverage of the fact that Alan Johnson used to be a postman. 

The chapter ends

Brexit marks the final end of one narrative of Britain’s future. Both the liberal left and the centrist projects that dominated Labour in the first decade of the 21st century assumed a progression towards an ever opener, ever more socially liberal society. Yet, just as history didn’t end when the Berlin Wall fell, xenophobia and prejudice are not things that belong to the past. From now on, the battle for social attitudes will be an insurgent task, bound up with the ability of the left to propose radical solutions to economic crisis and social disintegration. The only argument that could have stopped Brexit was that austerity and neo-liberalism caused the housing crisis, falling wages and stretched public services – not Romanians and Bulgarians. 

Watching the very same figures, whose preconceptions and lack of imagination lost the referendum, resign and blame Jeremy Corbyn should inspire a mixture of laughter and exasperation. Corbyn’s main mistake was not to take tighter control of Labour’s campaign from the outset – although, of course, had he done so he would have been roundly denounced. Like so many quandaries of the Corbyn leadership, the referendum campaign was characterised by a need for footwork and firefigting within the Parliamentary Labour Party rather than a strategic focus on winning the vote. The Labour right created an impossible situation and are now attempting to exploit the aftermath. If it wasn’t so desperate and irresponsible, it could be described as shrewd.  

What Labour needs

There should be no doubt as to who will win the leadership contest itself. Not only does Corbyn have an overwhelming base of support in Labour’s grassroots – he will, again, have the backing of major trade unions.  Since September, Momentum – a machine built with the explicit aim of defending the new Labour leadership – has formed over a hundred functioning local groups, and mobilised more than 100,000 supporters. The real danger of the leadership challenge is not that the left will lose, but that its instigators might be able to affect a shift in the politics of the party, especially on the issue of migration. 

In lieu of analysis, a number of placeholder phrases have proliferated on the left in recent days. For example, that it’s not racist to talk about immigration, and that we cannot brand working class Leave voters as racist because they are concerned about immigration. On one level, these phrases are obviously true. The problem with them – other than repeating verbatim the Conservative Party general election slogan of 2005 – is that they could lay the ground for turn against freedom of movement in the Labour Party. And while we must listen to voters without judgement, to give ground to the myth that misery and social incohesion are caused by immigrants – however much it may feel true in some places – is to give ground and credence to an idea that will divide and rot the labour movement from the inside out.

Rather than a miserable compromise on immigration, what Labour needs now is a strategy and a set of policies – not just visions and sentiments – to win back the ground lost in the English heartlands devastated by Thatcherism. This should include increased public funding for areas with high levels of immigration and a new deal for democratising the state at a local level. A Labour government must pledge a massive increase in the minimum wage, rent controls, a new programme of social housing, public and workers’ ownership, and a radical redistributive tax system.

The only argument against Brexit that made sense was that social crisis was the result of austerity. In the same way, the only long-term solutions must come from the left.